Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 787
The narrator, an unnamed fifteen-year-old girl who knows she was abandoned when she was fourteen months old, in December, 1960, begins her story by saying that although she has no money, she must give herself what she needs. In between being arrested and being homeless after running away from the state-operated Children’s Center, she survives by stealing food from the butcher shop and by enticing boys and young men, stimulating them with pornographic pictures and then feeling gratification through her power over their sexual release. She describes her “lovers”—one may be nervous, another may be mean, one blond, another dark. She offers whiskey to all of them. The pictures she shows them are of young girls, girls such as herself. She describes the acts she and the boys perform and says the boys sometimes get teary-eyed.
She recalls the ugliness of the dolls that she was given at the foster homes in which she was placed. Most of them had no clothes, and one had a hand missing. The girl identifies with these maimed and ruined playthings. Life treats her the same as others had treated the dolls.
The memory of the dolls reminds her of when Uncle Wumpy, her sugar daddy and father figure, gave her a doll. Uncle Wumpy was called that because of his pocked face, rabbit ears, and soft gray flesh. She recalls an outing during which she and Uncle Wumpy won cowboy hats, a rubber six gun, and a stuffed leopard for their cohort, Kitty. Drunk and wild, they shot ducks at a carnival shooting gallery until Uncle Wumpy won her the three-foot bridal doll with a bird in its hair. With Uncle Wumpy’s lighter, she burned the bird and later buried it in a hole in a place she would never forget.
That memory leads her to remember that she first met Uncle Wumpy, who worked for the state road commission, while she worked at a luncheonette. She cleaned tables and was mistreated and degraded by the forty-year-old Minnie, who cursed the miners who came to eat there. Uncle Wumpy told Minnie and Kitty that the narrator needed some new clothes. He and Kitty took the young girl to Pittsburgh for some new dresses. In a motel there, the narrator vomited from the drugs she was given. Kitty and Uncle Wumpy had sex and involved her in their scene, but Uncle Wumpy never had sex with the narrator. Instead, he gave her pictures to sell. Uncle Wumpy prostituted the narrator, watching as the narrator performed oral sex, choking, gagging, and tasting the salty semen.
Natalie, the narrator’s friend from the Children’s Center whom the narrator believes is dead because the girl believed she would die at age twelve, comes to her in a recurrent dream. The narrator sees Natalie standing in the sand, holding herself, and calling to the narrator for help. The narrator remembers Natalie watching her all the time. Once, the narrator tipped back a box of salt into her mouth. Though she choked and screamed, Natalie only watched, staying in her chair and leaving the narrator to sleep alone in her bed.
At the Children’s Center, the narrator would get cards sent to her by a jokester, someone who had been given her name and address. The cards were always inappropriate: at Christmas, a “To Daughter from Mother” card; at ten years old, a card “For Baby’s First Birthday”; and at seven, the card said “Debutante.” Though she was placed in home after home, she always returned to the Children’s Center at holidays, which is when she would receive the cards. There, she would lock herself in the bathroom late at night and hold a candle under her chin, staring at her shadowed face in the mirror. Lying down on the cold tile floor, she would please herself, and in a moment of self-expansiveness she would see herself running from stall to stall, flushing all the toilets and refusing to let anyone in.
Believing Natalie to be dead, the narrator remembers an autumn night when they played make-believe together. In their fantasies, a black-booted man unbuckled his belt and switched Natalie with it, telling her, as he unzipped his pants, to touch his genitals. However, Natalie said she could not because her hands were poison.
The story ends with the narrator, Uncle Wumpy, and Kitty keeping house together. Kitty is on probation, but she obtains some heroin and they all shoot up. In the quiet after she has taken the drug, the narrator listens to the click of the outside neon sign. When she sees someone move, she is afraid. She thinks that if Natalie were alive, she would find her.
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